I am thankful for books all of the time, not just during the holiday season, but I am especially grateful to have been on the 4th-6th grade reading train for the last month or so. Sometimes I have a hard time finding books for the intermediate grades that keep my attention. Sometimes, though, the books that do keep MY attention, I can’t imagine keeping a kids’ attention.
Two books I’ve recently read are The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz and The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin. These are examples of stories I enjoyed and that have important messages, but I am wondering if the readers at my school could stick with them.
Laura Amy Schlitz talks about her process for writing The Hired Girl in School Library Journal, and I found it fascinating. The following is my review on Goodreads: I can't really believe I liked this book. Not a lot happened, and it had more religion talk than I like, but I loved the characters. "Janet Lovelace" is a strong strong girl who lives with her father and brothers on the farm in 1911 after her mother died. She can't earn her own money or receive an education because of the work required of her at home. After attempting a strike, Janet takes a big step and leaves for the city where she finds herself as a hired girl in the Rosenbach's Jewish household. I think this read a lot like a soap opera, and she reminded me of Daisy in Downton Abbey. I think the book is appropriate for grades 5-6, but someone told me it was YA?! At the same time, though, I am not sure what kind of young reader would be able to stick with it. They'd definitely have to love historical fiction.
I went into my reading of Ali Benjamin’s The Thing About Jellyfish expecting to love it. I enjoyed it: The Thing About Jellyfish was up for a National Book Award in the Young People's category. I saw it categorized as a grades 3-6 book, but based on what I've seen, some people think it's YA. In my opinion, it is fine for 6th grade as it’s this period when friend issues like this arise.
The book tells the story of Suzy losing her former best friend to a drowning accident. Franny was a very strong swimmer and Suzy begins her quest to prove it was actually a jellyfish sting that caused her death, not drowning. Readers come to find out, though, that Suzy and Franny had been drifting apart before the accident. Suzy's feelings are very real, and I empathized with her sadness at losing her best friend. I appreciated the melding of the story and the scientific process about learning about jellyfish.
I am not sure why I continue trying to enjoy graphic novels like the kids do. They’ll read anything on these shelves without any sort of coaxing by me. I enjoyed Sunny Side Up by Jennifer and Matthew Holm. This graphic novel is mostly set in Florida in the year 1976. Sunny is living with her grandpa for the summer in his retirement community. She is disappointed in the lack of kids and in the abundance of early dinners, as well as continually finding packs of her grandpa's cigarettes, which he is NOT supposed to be smoking. She does meet a boy at the golf course, though, and they become fast friends. They develop a love of superhero comic books, they cash in on finding golf balls, and locating lost cats. As the story progresses, we see flashbacks of Sunny's life in Pennsylvania and discover she has a brother dealing with substance abuse issues. For me, the graphic novel format makes this discovery easier and not as sad, though it's obvious Sunny loves her brother and her family and wants things to change. The afterword by Jennifer and Matthew Holm mentions that they, too, had a family member with addiction problems. They mention how difficult it was to be watching everything unfold, and that it's okay to ask for help for yourself to talk about it. Great for 4th-6th graders and especially perfect for kids in Sunny's position.
George by Alex Gino has been, by far, the most important book I’ve read lately. It made me have all sorts of feelings. George tells the story of a 5th grader whom everyone sees as a boy. But she knows she's a girl. I can just feel her suffering at what she feels is going to be a secret forever. Her school has tryouts for the play Charlotte's Web, and George decides she wants to try out for the part of Charlotte. This is the catalyst for her sharing her secret with her best friend Kelly (the best best friend ever!) and her mom and brother. The principal at the school was a fantastic character as well. So much of my heartache reading this book came from what I would do to try to protect my child from what I imagine would be a life full of bullying and hurt. I learned, however, that once a person is free to be who they were meant to be, it makes things easier. The book wrapped up maybe a little too nicely, and was filled with possibly too many extra details about non-important things, but it is a lesson in acceptance and kindness that any 4th-6th grader should read. It's a very quick moving book.
As I was doing some extra reading, I learned Alex Gino has been involved with “queer and trans activism for the last twenty years.” I point this out because I believe it shows that the author has most likely experienced the feelings and situations George has in the book. Alex Gino is also a member of We Need Diverse books.
Admittedly, I was nervous to book-talk this story. I have never had a parent tell me their child was a transgender student in my sixteen years of teaching, and I am not sure how I would handle it other than being accepting and of course, kind. I did see some uncomfortable squirms by the sixth-graders, but I also had a girl cheer, “Good for her!” and George was immediately checked out by a different student.
Can you think of a recent book you've read and loved but couldn't get a kid to check out no matter how hard you tried? Have you ever been stung by a jellyfish? Are graphic novels always checked out in your library? Have you ever been nervous to book-talk a book? Has anyone ever cheered when you were done? All book cover images taken from TitlePeek.